I’ll start by stating my position about using research. We absolutely should use research to inform our decisions about teaching. That would include both qualitative and quantitative research. However, especially when looking at the research around what good readers do, we need to be careful. Sometimes in our haste to get our readers to the desired end results, we fail to pay careful attention to the path that the good readers took to get there. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring what I mean by this, beginning with one a classic misreading of the research. This has to do with the research around high-frequency words. Early in the 20th-century pioneering work was done around high-frequency words. Dolch and Fry both discovered that relatively few words (Dolch 220, Fry 300) make up most of the words we read (up to 70%). That means as you read this piece approximately seven out of every ten words are likely to be words found on the Dolch or Fry list. This fact led educators to think that it would pay off handsomely to include as many of these words as possible when instructing beginning readers. It spawned what came to be known as the sight say method. Folks thought they had found an approach that would solve the problems of teaching beginning reading. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the 1st Grade Studies concluded that sight say was not the best beginning reading approach. Where did things go wrong?
Let’s start by looking at why educators thought teaching the high-frequency words early, and by rote, would pay off big. The typical reader needs to know 20,000 plus words by the time they reach high school. By teaching the high-frequency words early we would assure our young readers would know 7 out of 10 of every word they would ever need to know. They would know them very early in the reading process. Wow! That’s a great payoff. It greatly reduces the work beginning readers have to do when reading text. Once they know the high-frequency words, only 3 out of every 10 words are unknown when reading running text. I want to be clear that I think that this is a payoff we want to have. Where the sight-say folks went wrong in implementing this was that they tried to skip right to the end without paying attention to the middle. What do I mean by that?
What the sight-say folks did was create stories designed to teach high-frequency words by rote. The “by rote” part is what took their train off the tracks. Look at the exemplar of such stories- the stories from the Dick and Jane series. The text might look something like this. “Look, look, look. See, see, see. See Spot. See Spot run. Run, Spot run!” The writers of these stories knew that multiple exposures to a word results in that word moving into the child’s sight word. No sounding out or problem-solving here. Read the word over and over and over and you will come to know the word. By the end of the first year the child would know most of the high-frequency words by heart.
Now would be a good time to remind the reader that sight words and high-frequency words are not synonymous terms. Sight words are those words readers know by heart. Adult readers know most of their words by heart. By contrast, high-frequency words are those 220 to 300 words that appear the most often in the English language. Yes, it is important that children learn those words early. However, counting on the strategy of learning them by rote resulted in children who learned the strategy of “memorize the words you need to know” as their main word strategy. They learned no other ways of figuring out their words. Given controlled text with lots of high-frequency word in them, they read just fine. When they made the move to normal text many of them fell apart. They knew the 220-330 but hadn’t a clue of what to do with the other 19,700 or so words left to learn. Do the math. If readers try to memorize those words they would have to memorize hundreds of words per week every week between first grade and the start of high school. It is self-evident readers need additional word strategies beyond memorization. This includes the use of synthetic phonics, analytic phonics and orthographic information.
There is a lesson to be learned from the failed attempt of the sight say movement. Their goals were reasonable. Teach the high-frequency words early. Make sure beginning readers become like adult readers, i.e. they know most of their words by sight. Their mistake came in how they tried to teach those high-frequency words. They taught them directly and efficiently by repetition and rote. They skipped the middle stage good readers go through. Good readers learn to problem solve their own words. In the course of doing their wide reading, after problem-solving the same unknown word several times that previously unknown word becomes part of their sight vocabulary. This is how they built their sight vocabulary to the levels usually associated with older readers. Failing to include that problem-solving steps left sight-say advocates in an untenable position. Once the beginning readers got out of the tightly controlled beginning texts, they didn’t have the necessary strategies needed to build the rest of their sight vocabulary.
Next week I am taking a break and going on a summer vacation. The week after next I’ll talk about how to teach high-frequency words in a way that helps students to develop strategies that lead them to become fluent, lifelong readers. In the weeks that follow I will explore how the same phenomena of “trying to skip to the end without paying attention to the middle” has derailed some of our work in teaching comprehension strategies as well.
Happy Reading and Writing
Dr. Sam Bommarito (Natural born problem solver!)